Are Chefs Knowledge Workers?

September 22, 2009

My son-in-law recently directed me to a resource that spoke highly of “manual labor,” as a gentle admonition to me. It seems I managed to convey the impression to him some years back that I felt manual labor was less noble than intellectual pursuits. Not the impression you want to leave with family, certainly not with an accomplished chef in your family. (I suspect the source was some of my childish observations about my son’s choices regarding higher education.) I’m grateful to him for raising the point, so I could correct my comments – to believe there is no intellectual engagement on the part of a chef is to have never enjoyed food or seen a kitchen work.

In one large kitchen operation I observed shortly after the restaurant opened, the head chef barked orders, threw tantrums, and generally courted heart failure during evening’s service. When I spoke with him, however, he did not seem flustered at all. It didn’t appear to be an act, but it did appear intentional. Before judging his methods, consider this: The chefs at each station must maintain in their heads the orders that have been placed for their station, must recall what else is headed to that table to ensure all food arrives simultaneously, and be interrupted at any moment by a shouted update regarding new orders. In addition, they must attend and prepare delicacies – engage in the craft that brought them to this place.

When I revisited that same kitchen months later, I found the head chef calmly occupying a minor sauce station, as the kitchen hummed around him. His reply to my question, regarding what had changed: “I have a kitchen now, I didn’t then.” He was weeding out those who would not rise to his challenges, and training the remainder regarding expectations. The information transfer was now a smooth process, and each chef was able to focus and prepare delicacies in a state other than panic. You may compare this approach with military indoctrination. A chef who joins a large kitchen isn’t doing different things, she is doing things differently – in a much different context. His challenge was to enable his chefs to continue to excel in unfamiliar environments.

Too often in KM, we begin with categories and frameworks that presuppose the people who most need our services. We look to nurses and chefs as people who require ‘training,’ but are largely not considered as knowledge workers. Is there a special brand of KM for this craft work, or does an approach that seeks (off the top of my head) “distributed cognition, disintermediation, and fine-grained data” provide us with the tools needed to assist here? Should we work establish consulting frameworks and common models, or seek to develop design principles based on organizational goals and how people think/interact? I believe many would answer that we should do both – but where do you see the bulk of KM thinking and sweat focused?

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